Israel discusses truce talks as Gaza desperation deepens

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Jerusalem, Feb. 26: Israel's war cabinet has discussed the next steps for negotiations towards a hostage deal and ceasefire in its war with Hamas, as concern deepens over the increasingly desperate situation faced by civilians in the devastated Gaza Strip.

An Israeli delegation that had travelled to Paris for fresh talks on a hostage deal returned to brief the country's war cabinet on Saturday night, according to an official and local media reports.

National security adviser Tzachi Hanegbi said in a televised interview shortly before the meeting that the "delegation has returned from Paris -- there is probably room to move towards an agreement".

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu said the meeting would discuss the "next steps in the negotiations".

Local media later reported that the meeting had concluded with the cabinet agreeing to send a delegation to Qatar in the coming days to continue the talks.

As with a previous week-long truce in November that saw more than 100 hostages freed, Qatar, Egypt and the United States have been spearheading efforts to secure a deal.

Domestic pressure on the government to bring the captives home has also steadily mounted, with thousands gathering in Tel Aviv Saturday night at what has come to be known as "Hostages Square" to demand swifter action.

"We keep telling you: bring them back to us! And no matter how," said Avivit Yablonka, 45, whose sister Hanan was kidnapped on October 7.

Anti-government protesters were also out in Tel Aviv, blocking streets and calling for Netanyahu's government to step down as authorities deployed water cannon and mounted officers in a bid to disperse them.

"They are not choosing the right path for us. Whether it's (the) economy, whether it's peace with our neighbours," 54-year-old software company CEO Moti Kushner said of the government, adding "it looks like they never want to end the war".

After more than four months of shortages inside the besieged Gaza Strip, the World Food Programme said this week its teams had reported "unprecedented levels of desperation", while the United Nations warned that 2.2 million people were on the brink of famine. In northern Gaza's Jabalia refugee camp, bedraggled children held out plastic containers and battered cooking pots for what little food was available.

Supplies are running out, with aid agencies unable to get into the area because of the bombing, while the trucks that do try to get through face frenzied looting. "We the grown-ups can still make it, but these children who are four and five years old, what did they do wrong to sleep hungry and wake up hungry?" one man said angrily.

Residents have resorted to eating scavenged scraps of rotten corn, animal fodder unfit for human consumption and even leaves.

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